Chapter 28 | Punch Proves Sturdy | !Tention

Chapter Twenty Eight.

“Thank you,” said Punch. “I didn’t want to bother you, you know, comrade, only you see I ain’t like you—I don’t know a dozen languages, French and Latin, and all the rest of them; and when you get on talking to that contrabando chap it worries me. Seems as if you are saying all sorts of things about me. He will keep looking at me all the time he’s talking. I’ve got to know a bit now that it’s meant for you, but he will keep fixing his eyes like a pair of gimlets, and screwing them into me; and then he goes on talking, and it makes you feel uncomfortable like. Now, you see, there was the other day, a week—no, it was nine days—ago, when you said when he was telling you all about the Spanish King coming here—”

“Nine days ago, Punch! Nonsense! We can’t have been here nine days.”

“Oh yes, we can. It’s ten, because there was the day before, when he came first and doctored your leg.”

“Well, you seem very sure about it; but I think you are wrong.”

“I ain’t,” said Punch sturdily. “Lookye here,” and he thrust his hand into his pocket and brought it out again full of little pebbles.

“Well, what have they got to do with it?”

“Everything. I puts a fresh one into my pocket every day we stops.”

“What for?”

“To count up with. Each of those means two shillings that we owe the old gentleman for our prog. Knowing what a gentleman you are in your ideas, I says to myself you will want to pay him some day—a shilling apiece a day; that’s what I put it at, and that means we owe him a pound; and if we are going to stop here much longer I must try another dodge, especially if we are going on the march, for I don’t want to go tramping along with half a hundredweight of stones in my pocket.”

“You’re a rum fellow, Punch,” said Pen, smiling.

“That’s what my mother used to say; and I am glad of it. It does a fellow good to see you burst out laughing. Why, I haven’t seen you grin like that not since the day when I went down with the bullet in my back. Here, I know what I’ll do. I’ll chuck all these stones, and make a scratch for every day on the stock of my musket. ’Tain’t as if it was a Bri’sh rifle and the sergeant coming round and giving you hooroar for not keeping your arms in order. That would be a good way, wouldn’t it, because the musket-stock wouldn’t weigh any heavier when you had done than when you had begun.”

“Well, are you satisfied now, Punch, that he isn’t talking about you?”

“Well, you say he ain’t, and that’s enough; but I want to know, all the same, why that there Spanish King don’t come.”

“So does he. You saw how earnest he was yesterday when he came and talked to me, after seeing to my leg, and telling me that he shouldn’t do any more to it.”

“Telled you that, did he? I am glad. And that means it’s nearly well.”

“It means it’s so far well that I am to exercise it all I can.”

“Glad of it. But you ought to have telled me. That is good news. But how are you going to exercise it if we are under orders not to go outside this place for fear of the people seeing us and splitting upon the father?”

“Yes, that is awkward, Punch.”

“Awkward! I call it more than awkward, for we did nearly get the poor old chap into a bad scrape that first night. Tell you what, though. You ask Mr Contrabando to come some night and show us the way.”

“Show us the way where?”

“Anywhere. Up into the passes, as he calls them, right up in the mountains, so that we shall know which way to go when we want to join the Bri’sh army.”

“It would be hardly fair to him, Punch,” said Pen.

“Never mind that. It would be fair to us, and it would be exercising your leg. Pretty muddle we should be in when the order comes to march and your poor old leg won’t go.”

“Ah, well, we shall see, Punch,” said Pen.

“Ah, I would; and soon. It strikes me sometimes that he’s getting rather tired of his job, him and all his chaps too. I’ve watched them when they come here of an evening to ask questions of the father and lay their heads together; and I can’t understand their jibber-jabber, but it’s plain enough to see that they are grumpy and don’t like it, and the way they goes on screwing up those bits of paper and lighting up and smoking away is enough to make you ill to watch them. ’Tain’t as if they were good honest pipes. Why, they must smoke as much paper as they do ’bacco. Think their captain is going to give it up as a bad job?”

“No, Punch.”

“Well, anyhow, I think you might ask him to take us out with him a bit. If you don’t like to do it on account of yourself, because, as you say, he might think it ungrateful, you put it all on to me. Look here. You says, if you can put it into French, as you wouldn’t mind it a bit. You says as it’s your comrade as wants to stretch his legs awful bad. Yes, and you tell him this too, that I keeps on worrying you about having pins and needles in my back.”

“Stuff, Punch!”

“That it ain’t, honour bright. It’s lying on my back so much up there in that there cock-loft. It all goes dead-like where the bullet went in. It’s just as if it lay there still, and swelled up nearly as big as a cannon ball, and that lump goes all dead and dumb in needles and pins like for ever so long. There, you try it on him that way. You say I’m so sick of it as never was.”

“And it was only yesterday, Punch, you told me that you were thoroughly happy and contented here, and the country was so beautiful and we were living so well that you didn’t mind if we stayed here for months.”

“’Twaren’t yesterday. It was the day before the day before that. You have got all the time mixed up. I don’t know where you would have been if I hadn’t counted up.”

“Well, never mind when it was. You can’t deny that you said something like that.”

“Ah, but I wasn’t so tired then. I am all right again now, and so are you, and I want to be at it. Who’s going to be contented shut-up here like a prisoner?”

“Not bad sort of imprisonment, Punch.”

“Oh no, that’s all right enough, comrade; but I want to get back to our chaps. They’ll be crossing us off as killed and wounded, and your people at home will be thinking you are dead. I want to get back to the fighting again. Why, if we go on like this, one of these days they will be sarving out the promotions, and then where do we come in? I say, the captain didn’t come to see us last week. Think he will to-night?”

“I hope so, and bring us news.”

“So do I. But isn’t it about time that Mr Padre came back?”

“Must be very near,” said Pen.

“Quite,” said Punch. “He gets all the fun, going out for his walks, a-roving up and down amongst the trees with his book in his hand. Here, if he don’t volunteer to take us for a walk—something more than a bit of a tramp up and down in the darkness—I shall vote that we run away. There, if you don’t talk to him I shall.”

“Don’t, Punch.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want us to seem ungrateful.”

“Oh, all right then.—I say, here he comes!” cried Punch the next minute; and the old man trudged up to the door with the basket he had taken away empty evidently well-filled again.

The priest looked tired as he came in, and according to his custom looked questioningly at the boys, who could only respond with a shake of the head; and this made the old man sigh.

Paz!” he said sadly; and, smiling cheerfully, he displayed the contents of his basket, stored the provisions he had brought in, and then according to his wont proceeded to set out the evening meal up in the loft.

This meal seemed to have lost its zest to the weary fugitives, and quite late in the evening, when the lads, after sitting talking together in whispers so as not to awaken the priest, who, evidently tired out by his afternoon expedition, had lain down upon the pallet and was sleeping heavily, were about to follow his example for want of something better to do, he suddenly sprang up, ascended to the loft, and told Punch that he was going out again on the watch to see if the friends expected were coming along the pass, and ended by telling them that they had better lie down to rest.

“That’s settled it for me,” said Punch, as the old man went out and closed the door. “I can’t sleep now. I want to follow him and stretch my legs.”

“But you can’t do that, Punch.”

“Ho! Couldn’t I? Why, I could set off and run like I haven’t done since I was shot down.”

“But you can’t, Punch,” said Pen gravely. “It’s quite possible that the captain may come and ask where the father is. I think we ought to stay.”

“Oh, very well, then, we will stop; but I don’t call this half living. I want to go and attack somebody or have them attack us. Why, it’s like being dead, going on this round—yes, dead, and just as if they had forgot to bury us because they’ve got too much to do. Are you going to lie down to sleep?”

“No,” said Pen, “I feel as wakeful as you are.”

“I say, look at that now! Of course we can’t go to sleep. Well, we might have a walk up and down outside in the dark. No one could see us, and it would make us sleepy again.”

“Very well; only we mustn’t go out of sight of the door, in case the captain should come.”

“Yah! He won’t come,” grumbled Punch; and he descended to the lower room, scraped the faintly glowing wood-ashes together, and then went to the door, peered out, and listened, and afterwards, followed by his comrade, he began to tramp up and down the shelf-like ledge upon which the priest’s cottage was built.

It was very dark, for the sky was so overcast that not a star was visible; and, as if feeling depressed by the silence, neither was disposed for talk, and the consequence was that at the end of about half an hour Pen caught his companion by the arm and stopped short. His reason was plain enough, for Punch uttered a faint “Hist!” and led the way to the cottage door, where they both stopped and listened to a sound which had grown plainer—that of steps coming swiftly towards them. They hardly had time to softly close the door and climb up to the loft before the door was thrown open, there was a quick step below, and a soft whistle which they well knew now was uttered at the foot of the steps.

Pen replied in the way he had learned, and directly after came the question, “Where’s the father?”

“He went out an hour ago,” Pen replied.

“Which way?”

“By the upper pass,” replied Pen.

There was a sharp ejaculation, expressive of impatience, the steps crossed the room again, the door creaked as it was shut to, and then the steps died away.

“There, Punch, you see I was right,” said Pen.

“Who’s to see anybody’s right when it’s as black as your hat?” replied the boy impatiently.

“Well, I think it’s right if you don’t. What shall we do—go to sleep now?”

“Go to sleep?” growled the boy irritably. “Go to wake you mean! I tell you what I am just fit for.”

“Well, what?” said Pen good-humouredly.

“Sentry-go. No fear of anybody catching me asleep who came on his rounds. I used to think that was the very worst part of being a soldier, but I could just enjoy it now. ’Tis miserable work, though, isn’t it?”

“No,” replied Pen thoughtfully.

“But you get very sleepy over it, don’t you?”

“I never did,” said Pen gravely, as they both settled themselves upon the floor of the loft, and the bundles of straw and dried-fern litter which the priest had added for their comfort rustled loudly while they placed themselves in restful postures. “I used to find it a capital time to think, Punch.”

“What about?”

“The old days when I was a boy at school, and the troubles I had had. Then I used to question myself.”

“How did you do that?”

“How did I do that? Why, I used to ask myself questions as to whether I hadn’t done a very foolish thing in enlisting for a soldier.”

“And then of course you used to say no,” cried Punch. “Anybody could answer that question. Why didn’t you ask yourself some good tough questions that you couldn’t answer—regular puzzlers?”

“I always found that puzzle enough, Punch,” said Pen gravely; “and I have never been able to answer it yet.”

“Well, that’s a rum un,” said Punch, with a sort of laugh. “You have often called me a queer fellow. You do puzzle me. Why, of course you did right. You are not down-hearted because we have had a bit of a venture or two? It’s all experience, and you like it as much as I do, even if I do grumble a bit sometimes because it’s so dull. Something’s sure to turn up before long, and— What did you do that for?”

“Pst!” whispered Pen; and Punch was silence itself, for he too caught the hurrying of many feet, and low voices in eager converse coming nearer and nearer; and the next minute there was the heavy thump as of a fist upon the door, which was thrust open so roughly that it banged against the wall.

And then midst the sounds of heavy breathing and the scuffling of feet as of men bearing in a heavy burden, the room below seemed to be rapidly filling up, and the door was closed and barred.